Frankenfish? what about Frankenmaize?

I’ve been following the news of the ‘Frankenfish’ – the genetically modified salmon that folks are trying to get approval to distribute, with a lot of interest.  The name ‘Frankenfish’ is presumably based on the cult horror movie of the same name, which dealt with genetically modified snakehead fish (if you rent it, you’ll get to see some people kissing in the bayou, covered in fish blood and guts. Thanks Smithee Awards!). Of course, Frankenstein wasn’t genetically modified, he was brought back from the dead. Maybe some sort of X-men name would have worked better. X-fish? Professor Fish? Or even an evil aquatic character from another series – Mer-Mon? Dr. StrangeFish (based on the villain from the Snorks – Dr. Strangesnork) perhaps?

Regardless, Frankenfish was a catchy name, and it reflects the feelings of many Americans about the dangers of a genetically modified fish – it may seem benign right now, but the second you stop playing your violin, it could go berserk. And while it might not intend you harm, it could cause disaster nonetheless.  We’ve been well trained to appreciate the danger of invasive fish species, it is easy to see why a genetically modified species would also cause concern.

But here’s what I find so interesting, and don’t understand. Americans have been eating genetically modified corn and soybeans for YEARS, with minimal concern (some people are concerned, but they are a vocal minority in the USA).  But the second we have a genetically modified animal, it’s a totally different ballgame.  Is it just a case of better publicity and a catchy nickname? Or does this reflect some cultural conception of what is ‘natural’ to Americans?  Is the fact that a fish can move around the reason it bothers more people than corn? If you think there’s a danger of them escaping into the wild, you should know that genetically modified canola plants are found all along the highway shoulders in North Dakota – genetically modified plants escape too. Is it because we can SEE a physical difference in the fish, thanks to the genes they have modified? Or perhaps it is because we tend to eat fish as a food, and corn and soybeans are more often ingredients in another food? I suspect we have a tendency to see plants as part of the background, and animals as part of our active, lived space. But that’s pure speculation.

I’m not saying people should or should not be concerned about GMOs – I have mixed feelings about them myself.  However I do think that people should either be concerned about ALL GMOs or NO GMOs.  The genetically modified corn and soybeans are in virtually every boxed food you buy at the store, so before you get into an uproar about ‘Frankenfish’ take a look at what is already on your shelves.  If you are content with the genetically modified corn and soybeans in those boxes, ask yourself what is so disconcerting about the genetically modified salmon.  You might learn something about how you view the world, and how the media helps to get us in an uproar sometimes. Or else you might throw out the boxes.

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33 Responses to Frankenfish? what about Frankenmaize?

  1. Lorena Moore says:

    Perhaps it’s the speed of genetic modification that bothers people…but I think it’s mostly the media hype, since much of the anti-GMO squealing comes from people who couldn’t spell (much less define ) “genetic”. Maize is often used as an example of GMO horrors, yet it’s a very special case and has been going through “genetic modification” for a long, long time. If that’s so awful, should we all go back to eating teosinte?

  2. CrystalSpins says:

    This is simple. The average person has more emotions surrounding animals — whether they are food or not — than he or she has about plants. Blame Disney if you want for personifying them for decades, but it’s the truth. And even if a person has never realized it or admitted it, most consider animals to be “more human” than one might consider a plant. It moves, it makes noise, it interacts with things in ways that we can see and understand to point. It is different. And when it comes to making a distinction between animals and plants when it comes to food issues — well this happens all the time. You’ve heard of vegetarians and vegans, right? Your argument doesn’t hold. Hold it for yourself, but there are plenty of obvious cultural and ideological reasons for people to make a distinction between fish and soybeans — and they have nothing to do with the media creating an uproar in this instance.


  3. Perhaps my memory is different – I remember just as much outcry about genetically modified corn when it was first produced. Actually, I am more surprised by the lack of current outcry over “Frankenfish”. But I think you bring up a very interesting point about humans putting animals and plants into different categories. In the United States we truly think of animals as a “meal” and the vegetables as “side dishes” or filler.

    • Megan M. says:

      Hmm…that could certainly be true – it is possible I just don’t remember the outcry because I wasn’t paying enough attention. If that’s the case, do you think the uproar over the fish will die down eventually? Or might folks actually push back enough this time to prevent it making it into the market?

      • Yes, I think the current uproar will fade. Frankly, the majority of Americans just don’t care. I freely admit that I often eat or use products without scrutinizing the ingredients, and I think that is the attitude most people will take. People are already eating things that should disgust them, and they seem to eat more and more of it every year. Heck, people should be grossed out by seafood already, considering that all the pollution eventually winds up in the waterways. A small group of people will continue to care, but those people will be labeled as “fringe”. Now, if people get sick, or some environmental disaster ensues, then public opinion will sway against genetically modified food and politicians will act.

  4. wry2010 says:

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I feel the exact same way. Either be upset with all GMO’s or none at all. I understand that most people probably feel different about GM plants vs GM animals for the reasons you point out. It is a lot easier to get upset about something you can actually see as opposed to something hidden in your child’s fruit loops. But I also think it can be explained by the same reason that some people don’t eat animals or their byproducts, but don’t see an issue with eating plants. We put a higher value on some organisms or label one action more detrimental than another.

    (I hope that makes sense, I sort of got excited and just babbled)

    Great post, Congrats on FP!

  5. lycons says:

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I feel the exact same way

  6. milieus says:

    Great post. We really should be more concerned about genetically modified foods. Our forefathers didn’t have that stuff, and we shouldn’t either. But of course, while I say this I am contemplating which snack to eat… I am fairly certain they all have some modified ingredients in them.

    ❤ Milieu

  7. urbannight says:

    At least I’m not the only one wondering about this.

  8. midnitechef says:

    Ditto! This is how we are going to solve the world food problem? Modify everything to grow stronger/faster/bigger to what cost to the environment and people’s health? Are we going to get fat off the growth hormones? Obesity is a huge problem already, is it thanks (in part) to the GM crops we’ve been consuming? Glad to see your post on FP, as more people need to be made aware of this!

  9. I agree — all or none. Why compromise and awkwardly try to weasel your way into rationalizing such lack of polarity on the issue?

  10. What I don’t understand is why people are not MORE outraged about all GM foods! How can frankenfish be better for us? Farm raised salmon is already cheap and also unhealthy (lots and lots of antibiotics as well as other carcinogens see this link for more info –

    I remember the uproar about GM corn & soy and how it basically had little impact. Fortunately, organic food is more readily available and I do think many people pay more and buy organic because they don’t want the GM ingredients in their food. I am amazed that more people don’t care about the quality of the food they eat. They only seem to be concerned about the quantity. I will not eat frankenfish but what happens when your frankenfish meets up with my wild fish? Ugh!
    Congrats on FP!
    Sorry if I ranted a bit but this is a sore spot for me!

    • Megan M. says:

      Aha – we were talking about the uproar over corn/soy above – I don’t remember it at all myself, but I probably had my head in a bucket. The fact that so many Europeans maintain a vocal outrage against GMOs, while Americans do not, makes me think there is something cultural going on here, but I don’t know exactly what. It will be interesting to see if the fish will have a bigger impact than the plants did on our view of GMOs.

    • catdaddio42 says:

      Why on earth do you care about the tales of horror that MIGHT happen (but never has) with “GMO” food when you have the evidence in front of you? Upwards of 100,000,000,000 meals served with some version of the “scary” foods and no one has reported so much as a tummy ache. I KNOW why we don’t have any organic food in our home – virtually all of the major food problems, actual sickness and death, can be traced to organically grown food. It comes down to two central concepts: 1. Do you understand and accept genetic improvement, something humans have been doing for 10,000 years? And 2. Do you trust the country’s “food system,” including FDA and USDA approval and inspection services? How much food genetics do you actually know? Read about the genetic research that went into these foods (plant and animal). How much food approval and inspection is already done? Find out about all of the regulatory testing that precedes government approval and the countless hours and efforts of virtually everyone in the “food chain” to produce safe, wholesome food. It’s not a 100% foolproof system but it’s pretty darn close. Don’t be misled by scare-mongering.

  11. The truth is most people in America are blindsided and don’t know anything about GMOs. They don’t know where their food comes, who produces, or how it gets to the table. Most people can only see the huge price difference between organic vs GMO, grass-fed vs factory farm- they don’t really stop to think why it would be more expensive to produce/raise one type over the other. It’s not entirely an innocent, ignorant’s fault. Most places in the country does its best to hide the truth, ban showings of movies such as Food Inc., etc. Check out this great documentary on Monsanto:

  12. David Raikow says:

    Dr. Strangesnork? Please tell me you’re joking, and that you do know who Dr. Strangelove is.

    • Megan M. says:

      yes I know Dr. Strangelove, and I assume Dr. Strangesnork was based on him. I was just looking for underwater evil-doers, Dr. Strangesnork was among them (I LOVED the snorks during their brief run).

  13. I’m glad that you brought up the GMO affected cereal grains that US citizens have been ingesting for years; however, I’m curious as to what you mean by “vocal minority” with regards to the outrage over GM grains, considering this post appears to be entirely anecdotal. Perhaps it’s because your memory of the hew and cry over genetically modified grains is perceptually incorrect (memories are subject to wildly different interpretations depending on context). In any case, your desire that the public respond in a standard manner to what you perceive are the same issues (GMO plants and animals) seems a pipe dream at best.

    Human emotions are notoriously fickle and people are apt to respond in situation-specific ways. Media is designed around this specific and erratic response. It’s worth remembering that every day, news is manufactured. If we forget how easily we are manipulated by the information presented to us every day—as fact—then, as the internet meme goes, maybe the terrorists really have won.

    • Megan M. says:

      I mentioned the influence of the media in the post – I agree that much of the current situation is probably related to it, though I am curious if this plant/animal issue is also going to cause a different response. My question is WHY do we perceive GMO Plants and Animals differently, if that is in fact what we’re doing?

      Per the vocal minority – I was discussing the situation today. Yes, it’s anecdotal. I suppose the more accurate assessment of what I’ve seen is that, while people might say “GM sounds bad”, value still trumps GMO-ness, and the majority of folks are not seeking out foods that are Organic. Yes farmers markets and organic food sales are rising, but the vast majority of the country is still buying cheap processed food full of GMOs.

      • I don’t seek out “organic” food at the market because I don’t trust that it is actually “organic”. I don’t know the grower – and I don’t know if they cheated. All I know is that my grandfather raised corn without pesticides, and there was a worm on every ear. He told me that meant the corn was good. The “organic” corn I see does not have worms – so I wonder what they do to kill them off. I raise plenty of my own vegetables, an I know from experience that most of the “organic” stuff I see seems too pretty and inexpensive to trust.

  14. I think that yes, in some way animals are considered somehow more alive than plants, and so the idea of modified animal products is somewhat more disturbing than the idea of modified plants. For some people. I myself am not ok with either, and find both disturbing. If animal modification raises a more popular outcry of disapproval I think that we have the movies to thank. Frankenfish, is a great example, as are the Piranha films, Jurassic Park, Deep Blue Sea and many others. These type of horror/disaster films take the worst case scenario view of the use of genetic engineering technology. Now I’m not saying that I am personally afraid that genetically engineered salmon will somehow go horribly wrong (for instance, grow to enormous size and start attacking people), but the idea does make me very nervous.

    In terms of being proactive about avoiding GMO products – that is not so easy as being made nervous about their presence and simply avoiding them. As you say they are in tons of food products already, and there are no labeling requirements in place (and all signs point to that not changing).

    • Megan M. says:

      Oh that’s true, I hadn’t thought about that. We need more horror movies that involve evil plants! The closest thing to that which I can think of was Troll 2

      • davidpj says:

        The Day of the Triffids, perhaps? It’s old (both the book and the film) but excellent!

        In terms of the topic, I don’t think it can be as simple as all or nothing in terms of GMO. “Genetic modification” can mean so many different procedures, from direct gene transplants to simple selective breeding. As a gut feeling though, yes, people are more attached to animals than plants, and franken-anything is bound to grab people’s attention!

  15. Cara says:

    I’m really amazed that people aren’t more upset about GMO corn and soy. I guess I was too young to catch the uproar when they first came out? I certainly don’t remember one, so by the time I found out it was going on, it had been going on for years, and all the packaged foods I was used to eating contained it, so believing it was bad would require me to make major changes to what I ate. I was invested in writing all that sort of information off as tree-hugger food nut hysteria, and going back to my cheap and easy eats. I’m guessing that’s true of a lot of people. In contrast, the frankenfish is a new thing that we’re not already dependent on, so we can complain about it without having to change our ways. The fact that it’s been given a catchy creepy name is a bonus. We should come up with something similar for the corn and soy, but it’s harder to package monoculture-corn-soy-ubiquitous-pesticides-does-the-term-potato-famine-ring-a-bell into such a concise, meaningful term.

  16. My issue with genetically modified protein, like chickens, is that the genetic modifications often result in the animals being physically uncomfortable to the point of being deranged. No one can tell me that a chicken with humungous breasts who can no longer walk because of being so top heavy is acceptable.

  17. Ishana says:

    The thing that irks me is raising life for our own purposes. I know it happens a lot — cows, pigs, and chickens raised on farms just to be sent the the slaughter house — but the GM fish just seems strange. I’d probably eat it (if I ate fish), same as I eat chicken.

    I think there’s a Jodi Picoult novel about that. One girl is born just to be an organ donor for her older sister. What gives us a right to say “this is your purpose in life because I deem it to be so?” But animals aren’t humans. Animals can’t complain, and don’t have the possibility of becoming doctors and scientists in the future. I guess that’s what the main difference is, and why we’re okay with raising animals to be killed. Animals don’t have as much possibility as another human does.

  18. kaykay says:

    totally agree. i am from Europe but have only vaguely followed the controversy and blockage of US (or other) GM food imports. I believe it was partly economical maneuvering to help the European market too. But it is true, GM foods make me feel awkward and the thought of “controlled” crops that leak into the wild are a worry. I believe clear labeling should be a must to at least give consumers the conscious choice.
    As for the hypocrisy of an uproar about a first GM animal being considered for approval (hadn’t heard.. eew), I think you are right. It reminds me of people being shocked when certain ‘cute’ animals are eaten in a recognizable shape or form, while they happily chew their processed ham. I am not a vegetarian, but I think people should take clear positions, and stop making differences where.there.aren’t.any.
    Good point.

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  20. Roda says:

    I personally prefer to eat most foods fresh….but then I have the luxury of being at home.
    We are a bit more lucky here in India as most people prefer to eat freshly cooked food but if you look at the younger generation who are always dealing with time constraints they have no option but to go the packeted way at times. But its sad that they are fiddling with salmon….one of my favourite fish. I do hope they just leave it be.

  21. I would speculate on two reasons:

    1. Animals causing damage is far easier to visualize than plants causing damage.

    2. There is reason to assume that out-of-place animals do cause more damage than out-of-place plants in a typical case. Notably, members of the public will have heard of more cases of the former (snakeheads, rats in Australia, Nile perch in Lake Victoria, …)

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